Although membrane fusion occurs ubiquitously and continuously in alleukaroytic cells, little is known about the mechanism that governs lipidbilayer fusion associated with any intracellular fusion reactions. Recentstudies of the fusion of enveloped viruses with host cell membranes havehelped to define the fusion process. The identification and characterizationof key proteins involved in fusion reactions have mainly driven recent advancesin our understanding of membrane fusion. The most important denominator amongthe fusion proteins is the fusion peptide. In this review, work done in thelast few years on the molecular mechanism of viral membrane fusion will behighlighted, focusing in particular on the role of the fusion peptide and themodification of the lipid bilayer structure. Much of what is known regardingthe molecular mechanism of viral membrane fusion has been gained using liposomesas model systems in which the molecular components of the membrane and the environmentare strictly controlled. Many amphilphilic peptides have a high affinity forlipid bilayers, but only a few sequences are able to induce membrane fusion. Thepresence of α-helical structure in at least part of the fusion peptideis strongly correlated with activity whereas, γ-structure tends to beless prevalent, associated with non-native experimental conditions, and morerelated to vesicle aggregation than fusion. The specific angle of insertionof the peptides into the membrane plane is also found to be an importantcharacteristic for the fusion process. A shallow penetration, extending onlyto the central aliphatic core region, is likely responsible for the destabilization ofthe lipids required for coalescence of the apposing membranes and fusion.

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